Over the next several weeks, I will be analyzing the phenomenon of human exhibition that was the trend of the day in 19th century Europe. I will do this with specific interest in the exhibition of the African body, and even more specifically the body of a Motlhaping man who came to be known as El Negro. Here begins my story with this story. There was a mild drought in Botswana that year. I also remember that there was also a flood and Gaborone City had just suffered a minor earth tremor – and that all these unusual happenings were (according to the superstitious among my compatriots) clear signs that El Negro could not wait to come home and receive a proper burial. I recall October, 2000. I was a 15-year old high school student in Gaborone. The news reports on Botswana Television repeated themselves like commercials about a southern African man whose body had been stolen from a grave almost two hundred years earlier. Ostensibly, the man had been a king of his Batlhaping nation or as Western media like to condescend: “chief” of the Batlhaping “tribe.”
I also remember political pundits on Radio Botswana speaking in subdued tones about how after the said king’s traditional burial in 1830, his body had been exhumed and stuffed by two French taxidermists in exactly the same way that trophy animals were stuffed, and taken to Europe to entertain the public who had never seen a black African. He had become known as “El Negro.” Before 2000, Batswana themselves had not heard of “El Negro.” As history would have it though, the African Union – Botswana included – had decided that his remains be repatriated from Banyoles, Spain to Africa. What better place to re-territorialize his remains then than the internationally obscure Botswana in lieu of the rightful South Africa to circumvent international media? In consequence, on October 4, 200o El Negro’s remains touched down at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone and his physical reterritorialization slotted him into Botswana’s narrative. We even created myths around him to justify our climate.
In this series of weekly posts on Black Looks I will:
i)discuss the narrative about Africa that El Negro served during his exhibition in Banyoles, and
ii) examine the narrative about Banyoles and perhaps Spanish society that he told at the same
Let me leave you with the idea of a “social freak” since that will be the first category I look at and the ways in which El Negro was made to be one and how that ripples across centuries to today in how the African body is consumed by spectators. A freak is defined as “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature.”1That cool night when Jules Verraux, a French taxidermist, and his brother exhumed El Negro’s body their objective was to show Europe body deviant from the European norm. El Negro’s corpse would be consumed as entertainment; a freak would be created. For the Banyoles museum-goers who had never come across a hue this dark or hair this tightly-coiled, the startling exhibition of El Negro immediately established a more tactile notion of the African, the Other. Looking forward to discussing more with you all next week.